Aug 26, 2007 4:28pm
Could We Please Just Take A Moment And Talk About What A Great Singer Jerry Was?
This is something that keeps coming back to me, time and again.
No, he was not Pavarotti, maybe not even Sinatra, but he could bring just as much emotion to a song as anyone ever did. That, to me, is equally important as the technical accuracy that is expected of great vocalists.
Many singers have a wonderful talent for hitting and holding a note. However, they may still lack the soul of an artist, rendering them unable to touch the souls of those who listen. The song becomes little more than an exercise in flawless reproduction of notes on a staff. Any decent quality digital copier and matrix printer can crank out another facsimile of a Rembrandt masterpiece, but the result is merely a duplicate. There isn't nearly the depth of feeling that comes from actually seeing the original work that was crafted by the painter himself. And Zevon once said "even a dog can shake hands." Human expression needs much more than a gratuitously robotic procedure in order for it to attain lasting significance. Jerry was no robot.
That guitar of his could certainly sing, too, and what a sweet voice it was. But it was the singer that spoke with such honest reflection, and when he was at his best, he would not utter a word that did not have behind it a deep and passionate understanding of its meaning and impact. The scope of experience that we lived through at Grateful Dead concerts was so greatly enriched by hearing him tell the tales.
It was a sound borne from one man's own life, unique like any other, but from him we heard a perspective that had a warm familiarity, as if the words spoken to us came from a dear old friend or brother. We wanted to hear what he had to say because he had a way of saying it that made us feel comfort and a sense of companionship. He could make us understand how important it is to simply feel, that nothing worth saying is trivial.
The mere timbre of his vocals was as distinct as any other component that wove the tapestry of wonder that was The Grateful Dead. He sounded unmistakably American, a cross between California and Appalachia, simple, almost primitive at times, but unfailingly energetic, even in those moments when the music was so quiet that the proverbial pin could be heard hitting the ground.
And his technical chops should never be dismissed, either. His ear was as good as they come, and when he opened his mouth to sing, you could be sure that he would be right on key, just like the dart that hits that red dot in the center of the board.
"That's the way it's been in town
Ever since they tore the jukebox down
Two bit piece don't buy no more
Not so much as it done before"
How sad, how achingly melancholic he could make us feel with the heartsick truth that things do change. He could make us know only too well that what we once believed would last forever will fall prey to the inevitable impermanence of almost all that we hold dear.
"Test me, test me
Why don't you arrest me?
Throw me in the jail house
Until the sun goes down"
We were empowered by him. He told us that we could spit right in the eye of authority without giving nary a damn what the big boss man will do about it.
"See here how everything
lead up to this day
and it's just like
any other day
that's ever been
Sun goin up
and then the
sun it goin down
Shine through my window and
my friends they come around"
He taught us that even within what is seemingly mundane, there is meaning and there is value, that in every moment of our lives we need to find something to cherish. The vocal bridge in Black Peter was always a gem of three-part harmony, but Jerry was the man who had the ability to jerk tears from our eyes when he cried out for the sun to shine through Peter's window and to plead for his friends to come back around to see him one last time before the candle of his life would be doused once and for all.
Stella Blue. Need I say more?
And I could carry on so much further about how he could make us really want to tell everybody we meet that the Candyman's in town, what a tragedy it was that the old man never was the same again, that we really will survive, and how much he gave of himself by saying he'd rather be with us. You can pick virtually any song that Jerry sang---from his own compositions with Hunter, to covers of Dylan, blues, or R&B, to his renditions of countless traditionals and folk songs---and you will find something there that was fully imbued with a richness of expression, a dedication and sensitivity to the song's spirit, and a respect and empathy for the songwriter's own vision.
Most importantly, though, he was able to communicate it all to us. The singer endowed us with something that touched us and inspired us. He could spark the imagination, and he could invoke sympathies and sentiments so deep inside us that we were scarcely aware they even existed.
I can hear your voice"
We heard yours, Jerry, and we'll never stop listening to it.
Aug 26, 2007 4:59pm
Re: Could We Please Just Take A Moment And Talk About What A Great Singer Jerry Was?
BryanE: Your eloquent posts stand above all else like a solitary Lighthouse on a rocky shoreline filled with cloned-sheep dung. Any comments by me will only diminish your in-Sight. So, I just want to pass along a few pieces that sprang to mind ...written by a friend of Jerry's:
"Yeah, we dreamed our way here. I trust it. So did you. Not so long ago we wrote a song about all that, and you sang it like a prayer. The Days Between. Last song we ever wrote.
I know what I'm saying in this letter can be taken a hundred ways. As always, I just say what occurs to me to say and can't say what doesn't. Could I write a book about you? No. Didn't know you well enough. You were canny enough to keep your own self to yourself and let your fingers do the talking.
All our songs are acquiring new meanings. I don't deny writing with an eye to the future at times, but our mutual folk, blues and country background gave us a mutual liking for songs that dealt with sorrow and the dark issues of life. Neither of us gave a fuck for candy coated shit, psychedelic or otherwise. I never even thought of us as a "pop band." You had to say to me one day, after I'd handed over the Eagle Mall suite, "Look, Hunter - we're a goddamn dance band, for Christ's sake! At least write something with a beat!" Okay. I handed over Truckin' next. How was I to know? I thought we were silver and gold; something new on this Earth.
But the next time I tried to slip you the heavy stuff, you actually went for it. Seems like you'd had the vision of the music about the same time I had the vision of the words, independently. Terrapin. Shame about the record, but the concert piece, the first night it was played, took me about as close as I ever expect to get to feeling certain we were doing what we were put here to do. One of my few regrets is that you never wanted to finish it, though you approved of the final version I eked out many years later. You said, apologetically, "I love it, but I'll never get the time to do it justice." I realized that was true. Time was the one thing you never had in the last decade and a half. Supporting the Grateful Dead plus your own trip took all there was of that. The rest was crashing time. Besides, as you once said, "I'd rather toss cards in a hat than compose." But man, when you finally got down on it, you sure knew how.
The pressure of making regular records was a creative spur for a long time, but poor sales put the economic weight on live concerts where new material wasn't really required, so my role in the group waned. A difficult time for me, being at my absolute peak and all. I had to go on the road myself to make a living. It was good for me. I developed a sense of self direction that didn't depend on the Dead at all. This served well for the songs we were still to write together. You sure weren't interested in flooding the market. You knew one decent song was worth a dozen cobbled together pieces of shit, saved only by arrangement. Pop songs come and go, blossom and wither, but we scored a piece of Americana, my friend. Sooner or later, they'll notice what we did doesn't die the way we do. I've always believed that and so did you.
They say a thousand years are only a twinkle in God's eye. Is that so? Missing you in a longtime way.
(@Robert Hunter archive, 1996>eternity)